Elder Scrolls Online Update 30 takes us back to some familiar locations from The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion but make no mistake. The ESO Blackwood update is full of surprises even for series veterans. ZeniMax lead designer Jason Barnes recently showed me some of Blackwood’s key features and places of interest, including a much-needed change for solo adventurers and an enticing new dungeon type.
Exploring New Facets of a Familiar World
ESO Blackwood takes place 800 years before the events of Oblivion, giving the development team a unique opportunity to revisit some of their favourite locations and build new stories around them.
The land in Oblivion is mostly flooded, but naturally, that wasn’t the case 800 years earlier. Take Undertow Cavern, for example, which was almost entirely flooded in Elder Scrolls 4.
“We were thinking how can we take something like that and make it our own and make it work, and tell the story of it, so we decided, let's drain it out,” Barnes said. “Let's actually show it before it got flooded, and tell the story of how the dungeon overflowed.
So, we actually took the blueprint of the dungeon space from Oblivion and used that as a reference point to keep it familiar. As you progress further down, you'll start to see the beginning stages of the flooding, the water starting to creep in slowly."
It's just one of many visual storytelling examples across the Blackwood biomes and it's a practice in keeping with ZeniMax's broader philosophy of exploring TES lore.
That philosophy ranges from small-scale changes such as colours used in city design to opportunities to explore decades-old ESO content, such as the city of Gideon.
Bethesda first introduced Gideon in 1994’s Elder Scrolls Arena, and while the settlement had its share of lore, players never got to see it again.
Blackwood fixes that, turning it into a key location and weaving that lore into the expansion chapter’s story.
Barnes said they naturally want to remain faithful to Bethesda’s lore but have the freedom to expand and make it their own.
“[Bethesda] has to sign off on everything and notes and things like that but yeah, for the most part, this is our original thing,” Barnes said. “We use their stuff more as a resource and a reference, but we're creating everything from the ground up.
"We have our loremaster that we checked everything with, make sure it's canon and all that. A lot of research and time goes into it but we get to create it from the ground up, which is always fun.”
It's Dangerous to Go Alone
Another feature ZeniMax created from the ground up is the Companion system, one of Blackwood’s biggest new changes.
It lets you recruit one of two companions to tackle major challenges such as world bosses with, and it’s something Barnes has long wanted in the game.
“We spent a good long time trying to figure out what would feel right as companions, and we kind of came up with what we feel is a really good balance” he said.
“It opens up more content for a lot of our solo players, things that may be tuned more for like two to three people. [With Companions] you get that extra healing, you get that extra tankiness or the extra damage depending on how you spec.”
Both potential companions have robust personalities and interact with you throughout your journey, chastising you when you do wrong in their eyes and generally providing good company along the way.
However, it’s not meant as a complete replacement for partying up with others.
“You know the build will never be as good as an actual player,” he said. “It's always going to be AI, even though you know you've customized a lot, setting up their abilities and the equipment, but it allows players to see more of the content we're putting out which is always a huge bonus.”
That’s not just for Blackwood either. Barnes said the Companions actually direct players back to older content with their own story quests and can accompany them back through to the original base game content, which is made more easily accessible through a new transport area that takes players to older chapters.
Portal to Oblivion
Not that returning or new players will be reaching for old content immediately. As the big ESO yearly update, Blackwood adds plenty to do for newcomers. There’s a new main story scenario revolving around a murder mystery to start with, plus a brand-new dungeon type: Oblivion Portals.
These pop up around the map. However, the team wanted to preserve a sense of discovery and adventure with the Portals, so there’s no indication where an Oblivion Portal might be. You’ll just happen to run across one on your journey.
Oblivion Portals transport you to a maze-like hellscape full of enemies and a chance at some snazzy loot.
The initial portal takes you to one island, and you’ll gradually move toward the centre of the realm where the biggest challenges and best equipment are.
Despite spending an hour in the Blackwood PTS, it feels like we barely scratched the surface of what ESO Update 30 has to offer. Fortunately, I (and you) don’t have to wait much longer to see Blackwood in its full form, as the ESO Blackwood update releases June 1 for PC and June 8 on console.